U.S. High Court Action Makes Retrials Likely

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday let stand a California case that prosecutors say will require virtual retrials for scores of defendants sentenced to death and life imprisonment.

With no recorded dissent or explanation, the high court refused to hear the California attorney general’s petition to take up the case of Lawrence Garcia, whose life sentence was upset by the state Supreme Court last August.

In Garcia’s case, the state high court made retroactive a 1983 decision that prosecutors must prove and jurors must find that defendants intended to murder their victims before a sentence of death or life in prison without possibility of parole can be imposed.

Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp has said the court’s decision will require virtual retrials for as many as 95 defendants sentenced to death and 85 defendants sentenced to life in prison without parole.


Before the 1983 ruling, there was no requirement in the 1978 death penalty law that judges specifically tell jurors to determine whether a defendant intended to commit the crime, so prosecutors did not specifically prove it.

Thus, the issue of whether a murder was intentional can be raised in the bulk of the capital cases tried between 1978, when the current death penalty law went into effect, and December, 1983, when the first intent ruling was issued.

“It would be anticipated that the vast majority of all those cases (will have to be retried), perhaps as many as 90%,” said Deputy Atty. Gen. Edward O’Brien, who supervises death penalty cases for the attorney general’s office.

The court said in the Garcia case that some cases would not have to be retried if, for example, it was clear from the trial record that the defendant intended to murder.


However, so far, the court has sent four death cases back to the trial courts, including one in which the defendant ordered two employees of a Santa Ana fast-food restaurant into a walk-in food cooler and told them to kneel and say their prayers, before firing, killing one and injuring a second.

The defendant’s defense was that he meant only to graze them and trick his partner--who had demanded that he pull the trigger--into believing that he had committed the murders.

“The exceptions are being narrowly construed . . . though a few cases will be affirmed,” O’Brien said.

In addition to reversing four capital cases so far based on the intent issue, the state Supreme Court has sent several life-without-parole cases back to courts of appeal to determine whether portions of the cases must be retried.

The ruling concerned prosecutors because of both the large number of convicted defendants who would have to be brought back to court and the mechanics of proving that a defendant intended to kill.

In some instances, it may involve replays of the bulk of the trials, with witnesses recalled to restate their testimony.

Many of the cases are several years old, so witnesses’ memories may have faded.